Bingo is one of our older Christmas reindeer now at the age of 12 years old. He has always been a pretty, what’s the polite way of saying it, aloof reindeer. He’s not timid, cos he has plenty of confidence but he’s certainly had his moments over the years where he falls into the category of being very head strong or independent. Lets just say when working with him out on the open hill some swear words may have been passed amongst herders when trying to herd Bingo!
The days of bringing the herd down from our winter grazing at Glenlivet usually involved a few of us on foot pushing the herd down to our corral on the hill ready to bring them back to our hill farm for the summer. Without fail for years Bingo would always double back and for anyone who has tried to chase a four-legged animal, flat out going up hill you’ll know it’s a losing battle. On the odd occasion we did either turn him, or he decided to go in with the herd (this was rare), he was first to be brought off the hill to avoid the risk of him somehow finding his way out!
As I said earlier he’s one of our Christmas reindeer. This means he’s trained to harness and pull the sleigh and to be fair to him he’s a total pro. Having done some pretty big events over the years including the very prestigious Windsor Castle he doesn’t put a foot wrong and being so handsome he of course looks great too. When I had him in my team Christmas 2019 my team mate, Joe, had to do lots of sweet talking and bribery with Bingo. For whatever reason Bingo took a dislike to Joe. Whenever we had to go about our normal handling of catching, loading, putting on harness Bingo always showed his antlers to Joe. Never me, I could walk up to him and he’s act like a well behaved dog and not put a foot wrong but he did not like Joe. Joe would find himself trying to win him over… extra lichen treats and giving him lots of personal space but more often than none he’d just find Bingo poking him with his antlers… Needless to say I found it very amusing! So much so that when Bingo cast his antlers before Christmas 2019 on Christmas Day I said to Joe I had a present for him but he had to close his eyes. Then I proceeded to poke him with Bingos antlers, this was Joe’s special Christmas present for Joe and now Joe has them mounted in his room, never to forget the wonderful friendship the two of them had…
However, I think Bingo has slightly mellowed over the years. Maybe running in the opposite direction every time we want to bring the herd in has worn thin and is maybe just a bit exhausting now in his older years. A couple months ago when we brought the free range herd into out hill corral for some annual management we were handling reindeer and low and behold Bingo come down to the corral of his own accord. I got myself a small bag of feed and halter and open the gate. He comes waltzing in, head in the bag of feed and I pop his halter on… Does that mean we no longer have to chase him around the hill side anymore, I do hope so.
I’ve definitely got a soft spot for Bingo. As lovely as it is having a well behaved Christmas reindeer who never puts a foot wrong and always obliges when we’re doing any handling there is something about a challenge and Bingo has certainly provided us with a challenge over the years. He’s got a spark to him which I love and he didn’t poke me with his antlers so maybe we have a mutual agreement between the two of us? Who knows…
Winter is always one of the best times of year with the reindeer. They are completely free range and we head out daily, locate and feed them so we keep a good management on the herd. It’s probably the time of year we get the most exercise too – a morning work out to find reindeer and bring them into closer proximity of our Hill Trips is a favourite amongst all the herders.
The top followers this winter have to be Okapi, Lace and Fly, usual suspects. However, with a greedy family often some of the first ones all running down together are Hopscotch with daughters Juniper and Kipling, and their calves Fab and Tub so it certainly is a family affair!
They don’t want to make our job too easy through. In January the reindeer often come to a call. We bellow our wee lungs out and the reindeer come running. But in February they like to make us walk, so most often two herders will head out and as good as get to where the reindeer are before turning round – one herder leads whilst the other walks at the back to keep them moving. Otherwise, they’d probably just lie down and we wouldn’t get very far.
On one occasion in January Lotti and I skied out to retrieve the herd. Always a treat getting out on skis and topped off with ski-ing for work… well it doesn’t get much better than that. More recently there hasn’t been so much snow, just a lot of wind so even if it doesn’t look cold outside that wind chill can get pretty brutal.
The reindeer are so good though, without fail they plod down behind us herders ready to meet and greet our many half term tourists wanting to visit them. Chief hand feeders at the moment are – Kipling, Juniper, Holy Moley, Okapi, Pumpkin, Marple, Brie, Ryvita…
Once the visitors have enjoyed spending time with the reindeer the herd wander back out into the mountains and it happens all over again the next day.
A while back I interviewed a few of my colleagues with some questions relating to the Christmas season. The first half of this blog can be read here. But onward…
THE SMELL YOU MOST ASSOCIATE WITH CHRISTMAS? With this question, I just wanted to check that everyone else had the same – as far as I’m concerned – very obvious answer. Turns out they do. Every. Single. One. ‘I think we all know the smell associated with Christmas…’. ‘Reindeer pee, obviously!’
Maybe I should elaborate though, for the uninitiated. Whilst we do our best to keep our leadropes clean, they invariably end up on the ground at times. Whilst the reindeer don’t actually actively pee on them (unless you’re really unlucky), they tend to stand on the ends regularly (lay a rope over a reindeer’s back, whilst catching another, and they often shake it off). We keep the straw beds in our sheds, at our temporary bases we stay at, and in our lorries as clean as possible at all times, but it is as certain as death and taxes that the ropes always end up smelling of pee from the reindeer’s feet and the straw. Lotti: ‘Reindeer pee on the leadropes. Particularly when drying out in the caravan…’
Tilly adds ‘Once Christmas is over I wash all the halters and ropes and even if everyone has been really careful not to let the ropes fall on the ground, they still have a very distinct smell of urea’. There were some additional contributions too – both Andi and I cite Tilly’s washing powder as the second smell that instantly brings Christmas to mind, from our red jumpers that we wear at events. Fiona added damp lorry cabs and Joe included mince pies. Along with ropes smelling of reindeer pee. None of this ‘winter spices’ Christmas nonsense.
FAVOURITE FOOD ON CHRISTMAS DAY: I was just being nosy, to be honest. Fiona: ‘The soup and sandwiches from Nethy Hotel – we feel like we’ve earned them [Nethy Hotel provide lunch for us during our last events of the year on Christmas Day]! Who doesn’t like free food! Plus a variety of meat from our farm.’ Generally somewhat carnivorous, Tilly surprised me with ‘sprouts’ (but roasted in the oven). For Lotti and Ruth it was the roast tatties, and the same for me too (as long as gravy and redcurrant jelly are liberally applied). For Andi it was pigs in blankets, and Joe, anything involving smoked salmon.
MOST MEMORABLE MOMENT OF CHRISTMAS (PAST OR PRESENT): This was a bit of an unfair question really, but I couldn’t think of a different way to phrase it. Most memorable moments of our Christmas seasons tend to be those when everything goes tits-up, most of which aren’t necessarily things we’re going to brag about! So this is the slightly sanitized version of ‘most memorable – and publishable – moment of Christmas’ Fiona: ‘Oh god. There’s so many – probably, to go back a few years, the Harrods event in London. All the other attractions would disappear at the end and we were always left to make our own way back to the lorry with 6 reindeer, past all the people going about their day to day business. Waiting for the green man at zebra crossing s!’
For Andi the memory wasn’t necessarily a specific one, rather one that happens from time to time at events: ‘The best experience from parades is walking with the reindeer following a pipe band, with them all walking in time. It gives me chills every time.’ I know this feeling well too.
Pen escapes featured highly for Ruth and Joe… ‘Aztec effortlessly leaping the pen fence at Gleneagles in pursuit of food…’.‘All the reindeer jumping out the pen once! They were very easy to catch and return though – with a big bag of lichen!’. And continuing with the theme of errant reindeer, Lotti came up with a classic from a few years back: ‘Probably when me and Mel tried to let four calves follow the adults up the hill to the enclosure in the dark to re-join the herd, and promptly lost them into the darkness…’.
Memory I wish I’d seen the most belonged to Tilly: ‘When we didn’t have a Santa for the parade on Christmas Eve at Newtonmore and I was the substitute…’. For myself, I have so many, many memories. Some good, some bad. But an affecting one which will stay with me forever is one I’ve written about in the past in a previous blog, so won’t repeat again here.
And finally, REINDEER YOU’D CHOOSE IF SANTA NEEDED A RUDOLPH REPLACEMENT?I guess this could be rather similar to favourite reindeer to work with at Christmas, but not necessarily. Sometimes favourites are those with naughty streaks, and presumably Santa would need a pretty reliable reindeer on loan if Rudolph is side-lined? Lotti agreed: ‘I would say that Frost would be a good Rudolph replacement, as he’s an excellent sleigh-puller, and in summer he does sometimes get a slightly sunburnt nose, giving it a red tinge!’. I agree with the reliability being very important – Origami would be my choice. He is pretty professional for Christmas events – he knows his job and gets on with it.
Likewise Tilly: ‘Well it would need to be a reindeer who is confident and happy to be at the front leading the way, so I think Aztec, with a ‘carrot’/lichen dangling in front of his nose!’. Another vote for Aztec came from Ruth: ‘I would send Aztec as he’s the most nimble – see my answer for the previous question! Or maybe Dr Seuss? Although I wouldn’t want Santa to steal Dr Seuss, so maybe not…’. Segueing neatly on to Andi: ‘Dr Seuss – he’s distinctive, charismatic, can hold his own in a new group of reindeer, and has a pink nose – perhaps it would glow with a little help from Santa…’.
Fiona reckoned Santa might prefer a certain type of reindeer, like a ‘hand-reared one, like Grunter or Sunny. They are happy with human company and happier being by themselves if need be.’. Joe hummed and harred a bit. ‘…umm. Kind of before my time, but Topi was amazing. Olympic is far too lazy… Scolty! He’d do a solid job.’
So there we go. My overall impression from writing these two blogs is that it’s impossible to give straightforward answers to any questions involving Christmas, even though everyone valiantly tried. I still only wrote down a very small section of what was said though, as many answers were nonpunishable!
Over the Christmas period Sunny, our hand reared calf of 2022, was out and about joining in with our Christmas tour. He join me on most of my events and was a great hit with the public. Sometimes if we had a one of our older Christmas reindeer who was in training or just preferred being tucked in at the back of the sleigh and not so exposed to big crowds then Sunny would stride forward on the outside and what a great job he did too!
We sometimes stayed overnight at one of our farm bases away form home between events so we would have to take his milk with us so he could get his morning bottle of warm milk. He was such a mummies boy but lets face it both him and I liked that. Sometimes it would be myself out on a team with either Lotti or Ruth. This was his favourite as it was predominantly the three of us who put the most time into raising him so he was quite happy!
Often we would take a more timid calf who needed the training alongside Sunny as he’s such a good role model. Saying that sometimes they were best buds and other times they would push each other around. Much like small children claiming to be best friends one minute and worst enemies the next.
So a short and sweet blog but here are a few photos of his adventures over the Christmas period. Enjoy! Cos I did!
Whilst we’re all still recovering from another busy Christmas season, I took it upon myself to accost some of my colleagues with some Christmas themed questions: There’s a limit to how fast I can type, so I didn’t manage to get down everything – some of the answers were very long, with lots of umming and ahhing! But you’ll get the gist. My chosen interviewees were Tilly (herd owner), her daughter Fiona (manager), and long-term employees Andi, Lotti, Ruth and Joe.
First up – FAVOURITE REINDEER TO WORK WITH AT CHRISTMAS(PAST OR PRESENT): I thought I was starting with an easy question, but apparently not, as lots of people had to come back to it later on once they’d had a think.
Andi’s response came after a short pause ‘At Christmas?… Nutkins. He wasn’t easy and you had to think carefully about which reindeer you paired him with, and which events would suit him, but he was such a fun reindeer.’ I’d like to add in here that Nutkins was, a lot of the time, a nutcase. A lovely reindeer, but undeniably a nutcase. He was one of those unpredictable characters – you never knew whether he was going to behave like a kid on a sugar high, or be utterly chilled. He played Russian roulette with us at every event.
No pause for thought for Tilly though, her answer was quick! ‘Mystery, who was so loyal that he didn’t even need to be led, he just wandered along at the back at his own pace’.
Scolty’s, somewhat surprisingly (to me, anyway), name came up several times, amongst other deliberations. Lotti: ‘Scolty. He’s very good at both the back and the front of the sleigh, and is an excellent role model for the calves’. Fiona: Scolty. Because he’s not too tame and he’s not too wild! He’s a thinker… like Dragonfly. Or maybe Dragonfly?’. Joe: ‘Probably Olympic. Or Baffin was good. Or Scolty. Well technically Kipling would be in there too, even though she’s a female. She has done some events as an adult though!’
Ruth’s answer, when caught off guard, appeared to not be what she thought she would say… ‘The first reindeer to pop into my head, which was a surprise to me, was Poirot! He was just phenomenal this Christmas, and didn’t put a hoof wrong.’ And for myself, the answer would be Topi I think. He was a total professional at events and parades, bombproof, and would always fall asleep on our shoulders when waiting for the off at the start of a parade. I’m sad he’s no longer with us, he was one of the special ones.
FAVOURITE EVENT? For those of us that have been around for years, this is a hard question as we’ve literally been to hundreds. Tilly has over 30 years of events under her belt! Some stand out whilst others – it must be said – all merge into one another after a while. On that note… Lotti: ‘I can’t remember which I’ve done! It’s all a blur!’
Andi: ‘Cowbridge in Wales [Editor’s note: we only go as far south as Manchester area these days, but Cowbridge (in South Wales) was a long-running event before that change]. An enormous but brilliantly organised event with all the police dressed as elves really took the biscuit!’ I also liked some of the biggest events like Cowbridge the best, where we were just a small cog in a large wheel. One of my other favourites was Wells [again, not one we do these days], where we followed a choir singing carols, which is far more festive than loud Christmas music blaring out. I also like Banff, as we usually got a full Christmas dinner at the end before leaving.
For Joe, it’s the smaller events nearer the day itself: ‘I really like the Christmas Eve events [Aviemore, Kingussie and Newtonmore]. Everyone is festive and happy, in good spirits!’.
Fiona and Tilly had – completely independently – identical answers. ‘The Duke of Gordon Hotel – it’s the last one.’ Predictable – by the end of the season they are knackered and ready to put away the harness till the following year! Tilly did add ‘Yee haa, back home for yummy dinner and lots of alcohol afterwards’ too! And as for Ruth’s favourite event? Got a least favourite one… that count?’. I’ll not elaborate.
FAVOURITE CALF BORN IN 2022? This was met with squeals of horror at the prospect of having to choose! I refused to let anyone cop out with ‘all of them’ though. Nuii was a front-runner, ‘The cutest, pint-sized perfection of a calf!’ (Andi) and Lotti had a particular reason for choosing her: ‘Since I thought she was still-born at first, but then she was fine. But oh goodness! SO difficult! They are all very lovely!’
Ruth was horrified at such a question. ‘Oh Hen, this is mean! [loooong silence] I’ll go with Lolly, since Lotti and I were the ones to bring her in from the free-range… although… Zoom’. Another vote for Zoom came from Tilly ‘A great wee success story and the best friend of Sunny’. Sunny is the calf we hand-reared in 2022, and living at Reindeer House, Fiona was responsible for him a fair bit of the time. I had no need to ask her who her favourite calf was (but I did anyway). ‘Ummm… Wafer. Only joking!’. Another predictable answer came from Joe: ‘Tub. Did you guess that?!’ (Tub’s mum is Joe’s favourite reindeer, Kipling).
This proved a hard question for myself though. As I’ve managed to effectively retire from attending Christmas events these days, instead remaining at Reindeer House, it means I didn’t work quite as closely with some of the calves as others did. It was Choc-ice to start with, as I was so delighted that Cheer had actually had a calf and that he was tame in comparison to her (Cheer is a very shy reindeer) – but he’s turned into a real brute and his little pointy antlers have been responsible for bruises on my backside over the last few months, so I’ve gone off him…
As well as being highly qualified reindeer herders… (a qualification that takes years of course 😉 ) quite a few of us herders have our own wee side-lines which we either do as a hobby or to get an extra bit of pocket money each month selling our goods online or through our reindeer shop.
Olly has been part of the reindeer herding family for over 5½ years now, since he was 17. Although he is one of the youngest herders he is by far the most practical when it comes to handyman, maintenance and craftmanship work and the list goes on! He has fixed many a thing at Reindeer House and constantly gets roped in to help with projects including woodwork and building. As well as being a reindeer herder he has worked for a bushcraft company, teaching groups of kids the skill set and more ‘simple’ life when it comes to living and embracing the outdoors… away from the hustle and bustle of normal life!
Throughout 2020 Olly has established his own company, Corvus, doing everything from putting up shelving to building sheds, whittling spoons and his latest venture of hand carving beautiful wooden cups. Each one turns out different due to the nature of the wood and working with the grain. He now has his own social media following and Etsy shop which is proving to be extremely popular. During winter/spring last year when the whole country went into lockdown, Olly lost work with the bushcraft company due to restrictions not allowing it to go ahead and has really made the most of what could have been a very long year – instead he has broadened his skill set and kept Reindeer House up to scratch in maintenance… Thanks Olly!
See links below for keeping in the loop and what’s for sale through Corvus.
I’ve (Fiona) been crafting with reindeer antler for over ten years now. I guess I’ve been inspired by the beautiful handicrafts made by the Sami people throughout Scandinavia having visited there in the past – their craft is a whole new level but having been self taught through trial and error I’ve worked out what sells and along the way got to work with a really great product. The best sellers are of course the necklaces, bracelets, keyrings and earrings I sell through our reindeer shop. These are affordable and don’t take too long to make. Pairing reindeer antler with colourful wooden beads it makes for a unique present or souvenir. I then took it a step further and now I do antler/wood handles for knives, bottle openers, cheese knives etc. This has been fun working out and having Sami friends to quiz along the way means I’m getting the best of the best advice!
I’ve made cake knives for friends weddings and even reindeer antler rings. I don’t have a company as such but call myself Antler Crafts. It’s a great way to switch off, especially if it’s a bad weather day, I can tinker around in the workshop and my bedroom making bits and bobs from the reindeer antler.
Andi has been in the reindeer herding scene now for well over ten years and full time since 2011, but has a very different hobby to Olly and I who work with wood and reindeer antler. Andi has self taught herself the art of taxidermy.
Whenever she, or someone else (usually other reindeer herders) finds an animal or bird which has recently died through natural causes, we pop them in the freezer ready for Andi to work on. She is self taught in building manikins and tanning skins to restore these beautiful animals. Although we appreciate it is not everybody’s cup of tea there is certainly enough interest for her to keep up this unusual hobby. Seeing some of these animals up close through taxidermy may sometimes be the only way you can really appreciate their colouring or structure as in the wild they are often they are seen in a split second and you may never know it’s true beauty.
You can follow her on social media and she also has an online Etsy shop you can check out.
Manouk worked with us for a couple of years from 2018-2020 and still lives locally. I was always very jealous of her artistic skills and beautiful drawings.
Over the last couple of years she has been sketching landscape and mountain scenes as well as her day to day subjects such as the friendly local sheep in nearby fields. She has turned her art into gift cards and sells them online. Check out her Etsy shop and get yourself some lovely cards.
Sheena is definitely the most artistic of us all… even though she would try and say otherwise!
She has a real eye for colour and shape and you can be midway through a conversation and she’ll whip out her sketch book and pencil and start sketching the surroundings. We’ve been to many music festivals over the years and while everyone is taking photos there is Sheena with pencil and paper capturing the moment in a very different way. She is so encouraging to anyone who wants to give it a go, giving them sound advice but at the same time making sure they create something from their own mind, not hers.
She paints on wooden plaques and canvas as well as making clay animals and selling them through our reindeer shop. Mind you it only makes it to the shop if another reindeer herder doesn’t buy it first! Sheena doesn’t have any social media pages or online shop, but some of her items are always available in our shop here at the Centre, and can occasionally be found in our online shop too.
Joe has been a seasonal herder now for over 3 years and when he’s not working here he’s usually a mountain guide so knows the hills throughout Britain very well. More recently he’s got into photography, buying himself a fancy pants camera! He’s got a great eye when it comes to capturing a moment or scene – this was always very apparent on the photos he took on his phone so now he has the high tech equipment the photos are even more mind blowing. So with his love for being in the mountains coupled with his knowledge and fitness to take him to some incredible places in the outdoors I suspect there are going to be some pretty amazing photos to come out of it. We will definitely rope him in to get some good reindeer shots, so watch this space – particularly for our upcoming 2022 calendar perhaps!
Loch Ness Leather is a company ran by a reindeer herder from back in the day, HeatherHanshaw. I don’t want to call her an ex reindeer herder cos you never really know when these ex herders dip their toe back into the odd bit of herding… Both Heather’s parents have always worked with leather and created businesses from it and Heather has now taken on that role and has built the most amazing company and products to go with it.
Some of you already have a keyring she has made as these have been going out in adoptions packs since last May for all adoption renewals (about which she wrote a blogfor us about last summer). She knows the rule for our shop – if it’s got a reindeer on it then we’ll sell it – so now we also have whisky hip flasks and dram sets available online. Living locally to us, we can easily catch up on her latest products; usually done during a dog walk or once the chaos of COVID is over lots of lovely social times, dinner and drinks! While checking out her website see if you can recognise those fancy models she got to advertise her products. 😉 Lol!
This was my first attempt at writing a book about reindeer. Approached by the reputable publisher Hodder and Stoughton in 1994, the editor had heard me speaking on Radio 4 and thought my ramblings had the potential for a book.
It was, to say the least, a particularly busy time in our lives, with 2 children under the age of 6, a herd of reindeer we were trying to make a living from and a second site to where we not only had moved part of the herd, but were beginning to look at how we would farm the lower ground.
So we were stretched to the limits. Indeed the introduction to the book begins with ‘I must be crazy, definitely off my head, to agree to write a book. My day is already full and chaotic.’
But as the saying goes “ If you want something done, ask a busy person.”
I would describe Velvet Antlers, Velvet Noses as written ‘from the heart’. The highs and lows of caring for such a special herd of reindeer. The stories of extraordinary people who dedicated their lives to successfully re-introducing them. And a crazy family called The Smith’s, who have carried on the legacy.
From those early days of Alan and I becoming the proud owners of such a wonderful herd, the Cairngorm reindeer continue to go from strength to strength because of the dedication of the next generation. And this dedication has particularly shone through during these difficult times with the Coronavirus pandemic. Months of being closed, but with animals still to care for and hard choices to made.
Now we have opened partially it feels like a very long road ahead though with many of our normal income revenues needed; to feed reindeer, pay herders and the ability to ‘live’ normally looking like they are going to be curtailed for a long time to come.
The opening chapter of Velvet Antlers, Velvet Noses describes an incident at Christmas time when I took reindeer to a local playgroup in Aviemore. The memory is etched in my brain forever when the heavy door swung back prematurely knocking the poor reindeer Larch’s antler off! It was a one-off and occasions like this are part of the steep learning curve but re-reading it this morning reminded me of the pleasure people get from seeing reindeer at Christmas (hopefully not with an antler dropping off) and how this November and December will almost certainly be very different.
Training male reindeer to harness and going out and about at Christmas time doing street parades, displays and events is a really important source of income for the herd and bring a huge amount of pleasure to the general public and reindeer supporters each year. Sadly I suspect this will not happen as normal this year, for all the obvious reasons, lack of money in the high street, the importance of not attracting crowds and of course not wanting to inadvertently spread the virus or put our own herders at risk of it. So interesting times ahead.
As I write the Paddocks beside The Reindeer Centre remain closed and Hill Trips are limited by pre-booking only to remain small enough to observe social distancing rules. Luckily we have an extremely generous following of adopters, who help to support the herd by adopting a reindeer. This has been and continues to be a massive lifeline for us and I would like to thank you all from the ‘bottom of my heart’ for your amazing support.
‘Velvet Antlers, Velvet Noses’ is long since out of print, but old copies can often be found online for purchase. Tilly’s latest book, ‘Reindeer: An Arctic Life’ is available, along with a couple of other books about the herd, via our website.
This year was the very first time I had work during calving season, as until now, calving season had always been exactly the same time as exam season. I can very easily say that calving season this year was the happiest month of my life so far, so it has been very difficult to think of just 5 highlights. But here we go, these are my five favourite memories from calving season this year.
Finding the first calf of the year
On Saturday the 25th of April, me and Fiona headed off around the enclosure to look for Galilee who was the first reindeer who had headed away from the herd to calve. It was much earlier in the year than the previous year, so I didn’t get my hopes up too much in case she was just ill or being a loner – Galilee can definitely be known to wander from the group. As me and Fi rounded the top of Silver Mount we caught a glimpse of Galilee, licking the ground. Fiona told me that this was a sure sign of her having calved, and as we got closer I could see the tiny calf on the ground. A new-born calf is barely recognisable compared to the calves I had seen previously in the summer and I can honestly say that Galilee’s calf is the most perfect thing I have ever seen. Galilee let us catch the calf and Fi show me how to treat the calf with an insecticide and some antibiotic spray on her navel. Galilee was very good but she clearly want us to leave her to bond with her calf uninterrupted. So we then fed Galilee and left them too it. The weather was even warm enough to cool off (and calm down from the excitement) with a quick dip in our own ‘private’ loch in the reindeer enclosure.
Watching Brie calving
My second favourite calving memory has got to be watching Brie calve. One morning Brie was missing from the herd, from spying through binoculars we saw her but couldn’t tell if she had calved yet or not so I headed out to go and check. Once I got closer I realised that she had legs actually coming out of her back end – she was midway through calving. I sat down a little way away from her and watched the whole thing through binoculars. I watched the calf take his very first, incredibly wobbly steps and have his first milk.
Finding Gloriana’s calf
Another favourite calving moment for me was finding Gloriana’s calf. Gloriana is an 8-year-old female who had previously never had a calf. I really fell in love with her during the 2015 rut. She was amongst a group of reindeer on Silver Mount however she was a bit of a loner from the group and used to sometimes follow me away from the herd once I had finished feeding them. Having never had a calf, we thought that she was infertile so imagine my delight when she started to develop an udder, the first sure sign that a reindeer is almost ready to calve. On one very wet and rainy day, Gloriana was missing from the herd. Andi and I headed out around the enclosure and found her on Silver Mount with a beautiful big male calf. Gloriana was a wee bit nervous but let us treat the calf with no problems. The next day however when we tried to bring Gloriana and her calf to a closer section of the enclosure, I couldn’t get anywhere near her. I think having a calf for the first time at 8 years old made her a bit of an overbearing mum, so it took us a couple of days to get near her again. She did eventually settle down and both her and her calf became more and more confident during the time they were in the enclosure.
Hanging out with an experienced mum
Okay so this calving favourite is not just one moment. A couple of times during calving I got to go out and find a cow and calf from a very tame and experienced mum. Usually once we find the calf we will catch it and treat it and then leave the cow and calf as soon as possible to make sure that we don’t upset the mum. However, some of the cows have had so many calves and are so used to people that they are perfectly happy to lie down with you and their new-born calf. The new-born calves are incredibly inquisitive and totally unafraid of humans. It is a really wonderful experience just hanging out with the new-born calves and their very relaxed mums.
Sending the calves onto the free-range for the summer.
My final favourite calving memory was letting the calves onto the free-range for the summer. We walked out of the enclosure with some of the cows on halters and the rest following towards the hills. Having spent every day of the last 6 weeks or so with the cows and then the calves, letting them go onto the free-range for the summer where we would likely see them every couple of weeks at the most was both sad and wonderful. Definitely sad to not be seeing them every day but also very wonderful to know that they would spend the next few months of their lives in the very best place for them, the mountains.
We are now into week 5 of lockdown and life for the reindeer herder who is still working has taken a dramatic change in some ways and yet it all feels completely normal in others. Myself (Fiona), Andi and Lotti are still employed while all the other staff here at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre are on furlough leave… a term I’m sure everyone is familiar with now. Hen is tending to her ever growing garden, which in this weather is the best place to be; and Dave has got plenty of work on his croft to keep him amused, especially now his sheep are lambing! The other herders have got plenty to keep them busy, though I suspect are missing their ‘reindeer’ time, especially as we go into a crucial time of year… the calving season. Unfortunately they cannot be involved with calving this year but we will be sure to keep them updated with all the new arrivals.
Where the reindeer management has remained the same over the past month (luckily coronavirus doesn’t affect the reindeer themselves), being closed means our work is chopping and changing between a lot of hill time, feeding the herd and a lot of office time. We have had lots of new adoptions come in, as well as donations. Folks who used to adopt reindeer but maybe it has lapsed over the years have renewed as a way of supporting us while we are closed. We are so very grateful to you all so a massive THANK YOU. We will keep our social media well updated so where we can’t have the Centre open and taking all you lovely people on the hill to visit the reindeer, hopefully we can keep you in the loop with the goings on in other ways.
The past week in particular has been pretty hectic so it was all hands on deck! There was a group of six female reindeer who had decided they wanted to venture away for calving into the depths of the mountains so we headed out to bring them home. With four of them haltered up the other two followed nicely and we brought them back to our mountain enclosure. The next day the rest of the herd were brought in too and Lotti and I did the big split of who is pregnant and who isn’t. The ones pregnant have been kept back to calve in our mountain enclosure and the ones who aren’t will head back onto the free-range. That isn’t the last we will see of them though, as we will hopefully still catch up with them daily. The ‘Christmas reindeer’ (castrate males) and bulls who have spent the winter either here on Cairngorm or on the Cromdale hills are now all back at our hill farm on the Glenlivet Estate. Although we aren’t doing guided public trips onto the hill daily the management of the herd will remain the same so we may well get a few of the male reindeer back over here to Cairngorm once calving is over.
One thing we have been publicising a lot is our Wild Farm meat which is our sister company based at our hill farm at Glenlivet with our other animals (NOT reindeer!). Reindeer herder Nicky has been fantastic in drumming up local business from her friends and neighbours, so meat sales have gone through the roof. Got to make the most of what business we can still do. I’m having to get involved with setting up adoption packs again. My role in the company over the past few years means I haven’t been so involved with this, but luckily I haven’t forgotten what to do! When Lotti and Andi need a hand to get a load done I swoop in to help out. As long as they don’t expect me to do this when everything is back to normal (wink wink!).
All in all we are getting quite used to the not-so-normal life of a reindeer herder and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t rather enjoying it… Our local area of Glenmore is quiet so we have the surrounding hills and Loch Morlich beach to ourselves. With four of us living here at the Centre – Lotti, Olly, Joe and I along with the two dogs Sookie and Tiree we get out running, swimming, cycling, early mornings to watch wildlife at its best, watching movies and TV dramas and lots of lovely cooking. We have even had a pub crawl. This involved each of us turning our bedrooms into a pub… Maybe that is another blog for another time, watch this space! The one enjoying lockdown the most is my dog Tiree. For those of you who know her she isn’t the most sociable dog to strangers, however if she knows you, she loves you. So when going out on walks and pottering around the house with no strangers coming to visit, she is in her absolute element. She is currently fast asleep below my feet in the office after her 7 mile run with Joe at 6am this morning and the morning feed up the hill with us… It’s a dog’s life for sure!
Recently we attended the Kincraig Fayre. We threw a few reindeer in the trailer and drove down the road. Kincraig is only 15miles from the centre so we headed out for the afternoon. Kincraig is a small highland village in the Strathspey. Every year we attend the Kincraig fayre and it is a great way to meet some of the local people.
Preparation for a reindeer event needs to happen first thing in the morning. We need to bring the reindeer down from the hill so we head up first thing to hand pick some friendly reindeer. We decided on four reindeer to bring down from the enclosure. All of our reindeer are trained to walk on a halter. So we shepherd Strudel, Jonas, Cambozola and Aonach into a small pen, where we put a halter on each. We can now walk them along out of the enclosure and down the path to the road. It is quite funny walking a reindeer, imagine you are out walking your dog, now imagine your dog is three feet tall, with giant antlers and wants to eat all the leaves off the trees! Once we are at the road we can load the reindeer into our special transport truck. Then the short drive down to the centre to unload the reindeer into the paddocks where they will spend the time socialising with the tourists and the paddock reindeer until it is time for the fayre.
So as it happens we decide to load the paddock reindeer into the truck and take them to the fayre for a change of scenery. The paddock reindeer on this day were Fergus, Scrabble, Sooty and Matto. With the reindeer loaded, we gathered some food for them, along with buckets for water. We loaded several hurdles which we will use to build a temporary fence to enclose the reindeer. Down the road we drive, past Loch Morlich and on towards Aviemore before joining the B Road south. We shortly arrive in Kincraig and are greeted with waves and children shouting excitedly “Look, the reindeer are here!”
We spent a lovely afternoon in the sun, speaking with local people about our reindeer. The four reindeer are enclosed on a patch of grass next to the Community Hall. The reindeer curiously wondered around the enclosure munching grass and occasionally allowing people to pat them and feel their warm coats. The reindeer ate plenty of mix and had water to drink, while we made sure to sample the cake and the candy floss. The event passed by without drama. We did keep a pretty close eye on Fergus though as we half expected him to try and jump over the fence. But even Fergus behaved and event came to a close around 4.30pm.